Are Philadelphia 76ers the Worst NBA Team in the Last 20 Years?

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Are Philadelphia 76ers the Worst NBA Team in the Last 20 Years?
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

The Philadelphia 76ers are fielding about as bad a basketball roster as you’ll ever see. But are they the worst team in 20 years?

The Sixers lost their 18th consecutive game Wednesday night, succumbing to the Sacramento Kings 115-98. Philly’s second-leading scorer, rookie Michael Carter-Williams, is shooting 39.5 percent from the field.

Speaking of field-goal percentages, not a single player on the Sixers’ active roster is charting above 47.5 percent.

Guys like Byron Mullens, Brandon Davies, Lorenzo Brown, Arnett Moultrie and Elliot Williams, among other low-level players, are seeing playing time for this 15-49 club. 

Per Basketball-Reference.com, 18 teams since 1993-94 have finished an NBA season with 15 or fewer wins—13 of them in seasons not shortened by a lockout.

This list includes such "luminaries of losing" as the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets, a team on which Joe Wolf played 621 minutes. Joe Wolf!

Or how about the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets, who won a whopping 12 games with Courtney Lee as their third-leading scorer. Or the 1996-97 Vancouver Grizzlies, who started Bryant “Big Country" Reeves at center.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Not one of these teams managed to surpass 15 wins, exactly how many this year’s Sixers have, although they’ve been sitting on that number since Jan. 29.

Heck, you could even throw this year’s Milwaukee Bucks—they of the worst record in the league—into the mix.

Make no mistake: Philadelphia is quite terrible. And the team may have the worst roster in recent memory.

But having the worst roster is not the same thing as having the worst team. A roster is merely a list of names on a ledger, along with all of the baggage (basketball or otherwise) that come along with them.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

A team, on the other hand, is what a coach—and to a lesser extent, the front office, fans and various other extracurricular forces—makes of said roster.

And unlike Bill Hanzlik, Brian Winters, Lawrence Frank or any number of others skippers that pepper the list of the last two decades’ worst teams, Brett Brown looks to be a gem in the making.

Moreover, he seems privy to the plan his bosses have in place, as he expressed in no uncertain terms during a recent interview with NBC’s Dan Patrick (via Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk):

I just felt like I was at a stage where I wanted the challenge. And [this season] would be a blemish on a coaching record, but I feel like, at this stage for me, that’s not my motivation. I hope to be a part of something special and build something special here.

As far as first-time NBA coaches go, Brown has the longest leash possible, hence his propensity for playing the likes of Jarvis Varnado 15 minutes in an NBA game.

Is Philadelphia tanking? Probably. But a lot depends on how you define the term.

If your goal is to stockpile picks and rebuild—as Philly is no doubt doing, what with one first-rounder and four second-rounders in this draft alone—then it behooves you to give as many minutes as possible to young or otherwise unproven players. Because if you’re not prepared to roll the dice on potential future assets, why rebuild at all?

Even Nerlens Noel, Philly’s high-upside (and injured) rookie center, has hinted he might come back before the season in an effort scuff up the tires a bit.

As Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale noted, this cryptic tweet could mean Noel has designs on coming back for Philly’s April 4 showdown with the Boston Celtics.

If the Sixers were tanking in the truest sense of the word, they’d hold Noel out until next season. But giving him playing time, even in a limited, largely ceremonial capacity, suggests Brown and co. are just as anxious to get their youngsters on the court playing together as soon as possible.

Not that such logic would get in the way of tanking evangelists, of course.

Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on March 1, former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy expressed his displeasure with what he sees as clear tanking from Philadelphia, per NJ.com’s Eliot Shorr-Parks:

Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing. I don't care, [commissioner] Adam Silver can say there's no tanking or what's going on -- if you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.

He said that with Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie in the building. 

So what, exactly, does Van Gundy mean by “that roster”? Does he somehow think the approach taken by the 1998 Nuggets or the 1997 Grizzlies—two teams with veterans that ended up winning fewer games than these Sixers have right now—was somehow more noble?

Last time we checked, neither of those two teams went on to win an NBA championship. That’s not to say the Sixers will, either. But there at least seems to be a plan in place. 

Furthermore, if every team operated according to Van Gundy’s standards, you’d have teams eschewing youth and cap-clearing moves for signing the “best” players available. Read: proven veterans devoid of upside.

Philly fans might not like the product their team’s been putting on the floor. But compared to others in the annals of tanking treachery, there’s at least has a chance of growing in value.

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